Despite drought affecting much of the eastern landscape of Australia, owner of one of Australia's biggest meat processors, Roger Fletcher was optimistic about the future for Australia’s sheep industry over the next 20 years.
In a lunchtime address in Sydney recently, the managing director of Fletchers International threw out two challenges to sheep meat and wool industries – change the current structure and grow it by 20 per cent over five years.
“The sheep export industry is today as big as the beef industry,” Mr Fletcher said.
“All of a sudden we got closer to the rest of the world – container shipping, air freight and communications did that.
“Coupled with the wool industry it would be the biggest agricultural export business in Australia and probably become the biggest rural employer in Australia, but it must be run under the one roof.”
A central figure through the evolution of Australia’s modern sheep meat and wool industries, Mr Fletcher had the humble beginnings of a drover.
He is now one of Australia's biggest sheep meat processors, with extensive land holdings, who exports to more than 90 countries. He is also one of nation’s largest wool growers.
In 1970s the Australian sheep flock peaked at 180 million head. It was predominantly based on wool production, supported by increasing global demand for wool and guaranteed minimum producer wool prices.
Lamb production, on the other hand, was considered a by-product of wool, and productivity growth was slow.
Additionally, during the 1980s, lamb was not an overly popular protein, with per capita consumption in decline and a relatively poor quality and health image – both in Australia and around the world.
The Wool Reserve Price Scheme was suspended in 1990, and the flock underwent a phase of liquidation.
It was during the 1990s that the industry transitioned from a primarily wool based sector towards the slaughter lamb producing industry it is today.
The most current figures show Australia’s sheep flock now sitting at 70 million head.
“During those times in the wool industry the customer was never thought of,” Mr Fletcher said.
“The lamb industry was undermined by the New Zealand acquisition of the sheep meat industry, completely ruining the industry and again the customer was ignored.”
He said the dynamics of the sheep and wool industries had changed.
“We have less farmers, processors and middlemen with bigger transports on the road – therefore we need smaller industry bodies,” he said.
“Our biggest challenge is to manage a growth of 20 per cent over five years and learning to work with the customer so we can absorb the product without letting the price down.
“We have to have people that are close to the customer.
“Through the links of the chain, from the farm gate right through to the customer, each one has to know what each other is doing.
“If the farmers can produce 20pc more wool and 20pc more meat - then we have to give the farmers confidence that we have got customers that we are not going to let go by letting the price come down.
“The way we do that is by keep improving the product so that more customer are going to buy it.”
Farmer bodies and peak bodies conduct masses of research, but according to Mr Fletcher the biggest job is getting the industry to take it up.
“I think the RDCs need a really good look at. I am not saying there is anything wrong, but I think it could be managed a lot better and get a better bang for the buck,” he said.
“It has to be practical – the farmer, the processor or the customer has to be in that research because he is the one that is going to make it work in the end, not the researcher.”
He claimed having two bodies both conducting research only causes friction within the industry.
Let’s talk business, and vision
What is needed for the one industry board, according to Mr Fletcher, is a small group of the best, practical people from around the country.
“We need the best minds with industry experience,” he said.
“You can’t have highly skilled people that have never been in the industry.”
He also believes a sunset clause of 10 years should be put in place.
“It’s common sense to me, when you set up an organisation, you set up a sunset clause of 10 years,” he said.
Mr Fletcher said the ideal board would have a representative from each link in the chain from the farm-gate to the customer.
Under each board member would be a sub-committee that would report back directly to the board in the process of making the right decision.
“Those on the board, for example, would be a processor, wool grower, lamb producer, butcher, an exporter and so on,” he said.
“I am not against skilled people, but I am a big fan of practical people with a vision.
“The most successful people are busy people, but often it is those people that are too busy to be involved with long-term groups, but they are the ones needed.
“You can’t expect busy sheep people to spend 70 per cent of their time on beef issues when they give up their time for the sheep industry.”